Anyone who follows debates around the statistics on intimate partner violence will know that there are plenty of myths, legends and zombies in circulation. Some of them go back decades. As a seasoned observer of such things, it feels like something of an honour to watch as a new myth is born before our eyes.
Yesterday the official homicide statistics were released by the Office of National Statistics. In keeping with the trend of previous years, there has been another fall in the murder rate, which is great news of course. The manifold reasons and explanations as to why the murder and homicide rate might be falling are complex, and I won’t even begin to cover them here. But in breaking the news for the Guardian, home affairs editor Alan Travis picked up on one explanation, which apparently originates with the ONS head of crime stats,
John Flatley, the ONS head of crime statistics, said two-thirds of murders involved partners or former partners or other kinds of family killing.
I don’t know where this quote was taken from, it is curious that it appears to be a paraphrase rather than a direct quote (ie there are no quotation marks). But pay attention to the phrase “or other kinds of family killing.”
Give or take the havoc caused by the occasional serial killer or spree killer, trends in homicide statistics are surprisingly consistent. The details of the latest homicide statistics won’t be published until January, but unless something truly unprecedented and spectacular has occurred, I’ll assume they follow the same trend as in previous years. For the past decade at least, slightly more than two thirds of murder victims are known to their killer – they are family members, household members, friends or acquaintances, and I would presume this is the category to which John Flatley was referring.
But as so often when journalists report statistics, a game of Whisper Down the Lane has occurred. (Yes, that is the approved, politically correct name for the old kids’ game, according to my own personal PC guru – my 10 year old son in a multicultural primary school.)
Travis’s report was discussed on Comment is Free by the normally scrupulously dependable criminologist Professor David Wilson, who said:
If the vast majority of murders come from within the home, it’s in changes to domestic life and policy that we find the most important factors behind the fall in the murder rate. Compared to 30 years ago, domestic violence is now treated as a far more serious crime.
Wilson goes on to praise innovative domestic violence interventions and adds:
The authorities are not only more aware of violence against women and children in the home but are now more willing to intervene with families earlier to prevent violence escalating.
Meanwhile over at the Spectator, Nick Cohen goes further, praising the success of feminism for the fall in murder rates.
My old friend Alan Travis of the Guardian explains the decline by pointing out that two thirds of murders involve a (nearly always male) partner abusing his (nearly always female) partner or ex-partner. Crime has fallen because society’s attitudes to domestic violence have changed utterly.
All of this would be wonderful if true. Unfortunately it isn’t.
The number of women killed by partners or ex partners over the past decade has hovered very consistently around the 100 per year mark. In 2010/11 there were 94. Since 2001 we’ve had a high mark of 117 and a low mark of 80 (in 07/08), but the overall trend is static.
I repeat, the figures up to June 2012 have yet to be released, but the only way the overall drop of 86 homicides could be explained by a fall in the number of female DV deaths would be for the number of women killed by their partners to have fallen to very nearly zero. If that is true, I’ll be celebrating with the best of them, while gobbling chapeau sandwich.
The whopping great mistake in all these reports (which may or may not originate with the ONS themselves) is to include ‘friends and acquaintances’ as domestic violence casualties. They’re not. Many of these ‘acquaintances’ may be rival drug dealers, for example. In fact, in 2010/11, the “friends and acquaintances” category was by far the largest subset of the group, accounting for 204 murders – more than twice as many as female DV victims. Every previous year shows the same pattern. The full category also includes children killed by parents; parents (including elderly relatives) killed by their children; sibling murders; husbands killed by wives and various ‘other’ combinations. Rather than accounting for over two thirds of murders as Cohen claims, in 2010/11 only 17% of homicides were women being murdered by their partners.
The most depressing part of this is not the factual inaccuracy, but that the myth being created is actively dangerous for women. The sad truth is that domestic violence deaths are the one major category of homicide statistics that are bucking the trend on violent crime. They are not falling – they are remaining stubbornly persistent.
Domestic violence services of all sorts are facing horrific cutbacks from local and national government and drop in charitable funding. These services are needed as much today as ever. It is horrifying to think that the establishment readers of the Spectator might reassure themselves with the thought that the need for intervention is less than it was. Cohen’s celebration of feminist achievement is premature, ill-judged and does no one any favours.